Feature :: Page 6 :: A Death of Her Choosing

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Cars flowed over the gray-green arch of the bridge. The river’s cold current pushed north, past the trees on the far shore, past the boats moored below, past the bedroom.

The people around the woman in the bed had read to her, hugged her, kissed her. They would forever remember the moment as peaceful, loving, profound. There were no intense good-byes—this was Peggy Sutherland’s ritual and she wanted none of that. Besides, they’d all been said already.

But when the glass containing the barbiturate was placed beside her bed, and Sutherland grabbed it and brought it to her lips like lemonade on a hot summer afternoon, her children involuntarily jumped forward.

“Jeez, mom, can you just wait two seconds?” someone said.

But Sutherland was ready. She drank the liquid, closed her eyes, and fell asleep in three or four minutes. The room was silent; a few people left. After perhaps 15 minutes, her doctor stepped forward and took Sutherland’s pulse. Not yet, he indicated. Ellen Baltus decided then that she would stay with her mother until the funeral home people came—for some reason she just couldn’t stand the thought of her lying there all alone.

Another minute or two, and the doctor took Sutherland’s pulse again. He nodded to her family. He recorded the time of death: 10:23 a.m. It was a Thursday in winter, January 25, 2001.

Todd Schwartz is a is a writer based in Portland and the former director of communications for the Oregon Health Sciences University Foundation.

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